In Margot Livesy’s novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy, an update of Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre, the heroine spends hours reading her uncle’s copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, the famous double-elephant folio of bird prints. At one point Jane considers taking the book with her when she moves out of the house.That anyone could carry a volume of Birds of America strains credulity: each of the four volumes weighs 50 pounds (27kg). But had this 1960s version of Jane Eyre decided to take the book, her money problems would have been solved. Birds of America is now the most expensive book in the world. In 2010 a set sold for more than $10m.
But while the suggestion that Jane could carry the book is unrealistic, Ms Livesy’s reference to her access of the book makes sense. Brönte’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brönte, owned the Birds of America books at one time. In her Life of Charlotte Brönte, Elizabeth Gaskell reproduces a letter from her to Emily, which includes a list of book recommendations. “For Natural History, read Bewick, and Audubon, and Goldsmith,” she wrote. Brönte’s set, enjoyed by Anne and Emily as well as Charlotte, does still exist, intact, and bound in brown leather. Where? In Cleveland, Ohio.